I arrived in Japan two days ago—two days that I spent in Tokyo, two hours of which I spent in two totally different cities, just two blocks apart.
I was keen to explore the world’s largest city—whether you cut the cake by area or population, Tokyo in 2011 still wins the prize. Nearly 36 million people inhabit the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area (about one-fourth of Japan’s population).
Though it sounds like a recipe for chaos, Tokyo did not seem chaotic to me. Rather, the web of streets and endless blocks of building blocks are like a massive beehive that speeds up and slows down depending on the tick-tock of time and available light, be it the very early-rising sun or some giant red flashing TV screen.
Lights equal action in Tokyo, and luminous action is everywhere—colored, flashing, blinking, spinning, glowing. Add the machine-like music that shouts out from unseen speakers and Tokyo feels like walking through a floor of slots in the world’s largest casino. Indeed, the ever-present lights and bells and music make you feel like you’ve just won the jackpot—every five seconds.
Feeling like a winner in the city, I stepped on the train and took a ride on Tokyo’s staggering subway system, with its 13 different lines and 282 stations. The subway map looks like a hi-tech processor chip pulled out of a laptop, but as I came to discover, the subway itself is remarkably easy to use, even if you don’t read Japanese.
My goal was Harajuku, a part of Tokyo of which I’d heard so much about: strange fashions, bizarre sights and Japanese people pushing the limits of culture. I was armed and ready to take on Tokyo with my camera—and when I exited at Harajuku station, I was instantly greeted by so many Harajuku girls! At least, that’s what my excited tourist mind told me. There were about fifty young girls, dressed in perky schoolgirl fashion, all standing against walls and pillars and facing the incoming flow of commuter traffic—each holding up handwritten signs with earnest Japanese characters. “V6!” the signs shouted, or rather, those are the only words I could decipher. I talked to one girl, then another—no English plus no Japanese equals a guessing game of hands and smiles. In fact, I am quickly learning that Japan is a guessing game of constantly gathering clues, in hopes that someday I might decipher what’s really inside that little brown envelope in the middle of the game board.
What I discovered is that V6 is a very popular Japanese boy band and that they were having a concert in Harajuku that night. These girls were all scrambling for tickets, some of them offering their friendship for the evening in exchange for a ticket. “Take me! Sexy honey bunny!” said one girl’s sign, handwritten on lined notebook paper. All this, for a band whose hit single “Honey Beat” opens with the line, “I wanna make you shining smile.”
I was shining smiling as I walked away from the station in search of the crazy pop world of Harajuku. Instead, like being drawn into a dream I couldn’t control, I found myself entering a huge forest. A single, four-story-high torii gate bridged the wide gravel path, inviting me in and I followed, walking slowly, watching as others entered, bowing at the forest through the gate.
What was this place? There was nothing but trees here—very tall and very old trees, full and dark green and scented like cedar and lemon and aloe all mixed together. A cloud of cicadas roared in the forest, and unseen birds sang songs that my ears have never heard before. I kept walking, deeper and deeper into the forest. Suddenly, there was no city, only nature. The forest seemed to last forever and it felt as if I’d walked a mile before I came upon another torii gate: two pillars sanded smooth, with an overlaying arch announcing another entrance into an even deeper heart of this eternal forest. I watched as others entered, almost cautiously and those who exited, each turned and bowed before leaving. I kept walking, noticed the sound of water flowing.
The best part of not being able to read is that it forces you to rely solely on what you feel about a place. I felt calm here, curious and subdued by the massive forest. The back of my mind reminded me that this was Tokyo, but my eyes only saw the wildest nature and my ears only heard the sounds of nature.
At the end of this very long path—a path that took me twenty minutes to walk, stood a Shinto shrine—built in the ancient architectural style of Japan, curved tiled roofs, arches and gateways and steps leading into another courtyard and another.
On the left side was a covered fountain, where I saw older men and women, along with young teenagers, who washed their hands according to ritual—taking a bamboo dipper and washing the left hand, then the right, then cupping the left hand and rinsing out their mouths. I followed their example, then entered through the giant square doorway.
No doubt this was a peaceful place, without any noise or fuss. The courtyard was level so that I could almost feel and hear the footsteps of the Shinto monk in white socks and slippers who paced from one entrance to the other. I watched as the devout stood at the shrine and bowed twice, then clapped twice—once to call up to the divine by way of their guiding spirit and a second time to focus on whatever righteous desire they sought.
Watching how a country prays is as insightful as watching how a country parties. I stood silently at the shrine for a long five minutes, contemplating this tranquil place that I had arrived in. Then I entered another courtyard where a young woman knelt on a mat and tended to a shelf of items one could buy. She was dressed all in white, with a bright red sash around her waist—a Shinto nun. I tried not to stare directly at her face but I couldn’t help myself. She was beautiful, with perfect proportions and no makeup.
I asked, “Photo?” and the girl kindly refused with a hand gesture I will never forget for its delicate and inoffensive manner. In fact, there were no pictures allowed here at all. After all the photo-crazy Japanese I had witnessed in the world, I had come to the part of Tokyo where photos were forbidden—even cell phones were forbidden. Indeed, this particular Harajuku girl was not like the rest.
Enchanted by this young nun, I loitered at her counter, reviewing the various charms she sold: charms for passing entrance examinations, for delivering babies, for good health, for protection. I watched as a couple came and bought a charm “For Victory”—it had a label, in English. They had no charms against jet lag so I simply bought one of the universal charms, from this very quiet woman of universal charm. She handed me my change and bowed and I smiled and bowed back. Travel is filled with moments of meeting marvelous strangers, wondering why they wake up in the morning, why they dress how they do, wishing you could spend a day or years as close friends, and then saying goodbye forever.
I had taken the train to Harajuku but ended up instead at Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine, built in honor of the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. I learned all of this from an English pamphlet I acquired after leaving. My eyes scanned the information—the forest was grown from 100,000 donated trees, the site chosen from a longstanding iris garden favored by the royalty, and the building fairly recent—from the 1920s.
By now the sun had set and the forest had turned dark, so I navigated my way back to the lights of Tokyo—moreover, the lights and music of Harajuku. Suddenly, what I had failed to locate before came to life all around me, drawing me closer to the pink warmth of its happy noise.
Harajuku’s Takeshita Street is a topsy-turvy video-game bubble gum pop dream cartoon fun fair. I’m talking Shirley Temple meets Sex Pistols in a parade with Strawberry Shortcake and her friendly vampire friends in the vein of Alice in Wonderland’s spastic tea party and so on and so on. Watching it all through the haze of jet lag made it all the more super-trippy.
The outrageous fashion art of Harajuku is indescribable, but I’ll try. My first impression is that the art lies not in singular clothing items, but in the combinations thereof: Thigh-high motorcycle boots with baroque hoop skirts and lacy petticoats with mascara eyes cached behind the too-long bangs of a baby-blue wig. Or the platinum blonde Japanese girl with long glittery eyelashes and neon green lightning bolt earrings—she looked like an anime cartoon, only she had a real live human pulse. The only white woman I saw wore watermelon-colored poofy pantaloons, a tight-fitting black jacket and a whirling antenna of a hat that spun atop her head. And then, men with tsunami-proof platform shoes and frazzled hair like Bon Jovi, circa 1986, attracting looks from packs of schoolgirls who seemed to have stepped out of some 18th century Viennese punk fantasia.
Harajuku is happy cyber punk: smiling fluorescent pink skulls, ripped calico printed with cartoon fruit, Batman comics on mini-skirts, clip-on Mickey Mouse ears upholstered in bandana fabric, glowing jelly bracelets to cover both arms. The style is wildly imaginative, very urban, and embraces the artificial like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
The rest of the world discovered Harajuku long ago—I arrived quite late on the scene and for one night only. Everyone said to go on a Sunday—that’s when Harajuku really becomes Harajuku, but I showed up on a random Wednesday night and the show was fine and full on. If the mall back at home was anything like Harajuku, I think I’d enjoy shopping a whole lot more. I mean, if Macy’s ever had life-size female mannequins fitted with giant rabbit heads and dressed in couture, then I’d probably be a much bigger fan of Macy’s.
Indeed, the constant surprise of Harajuku forced me to slow down, my mind was working too quickly and wanted to take it all in. Eventually, I just stopped and dropped to my knees and waited, stooped at the curb, staring at all that passed.
I’ve sat in the slushy mud of penguin colonies and tracked lions in Africa and wrangled wild horses in the outback and hung out in the dressing rooms of cross-dressing circus performers—none of it compares to the wild life of Harajuku.
Amazingly, Harajuku’s fashionistas were only too willing to pose for a photo. I had re-entered the trigger-happy camera culture of Japan where everything was photograph-able and everyone was a model. On the outside, I smiled and laughed with the Harajuku kids as I took their picture, but on the inside, I was rubbing my neck from the cultural whiplash I’d just experienced: an hour at a silent Shinto shrine followed by an hour in the hip-hop madness of Harajuku. Two hours of my life in two Tokyos that changed me two different ways.
I am very new here and still learning, but already I notice the different rules of quiet and noise, the lines between calm and chaos, nature and non-nature. Nothing I’ve learned in my lifetime can guide me here—there is no instruction booklet for Tokyo. There is only the dreamy strangeness of Japan with its pieces that fit and don’t fit.
An obedient tourist, I ended my evening by picking through a T-shirt rack in Harajuku, finding shirts that read, “Lake Erie, Idaho”, “Black man fantasy punch” and “Western University of Psychiatric Arts”. I searched without aim until I realized what I really wanted (but failed to find)—a T-shirt that reads, “I wanna make you shining smile.”
Because I really do.